• What Do I Do if I Have Any of These Symptoms?
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    Monday the 4th of September is World Sexual Health Day! Join us as we look at a variety of sexual health topics in the lead up to the 4th!

    At the height of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, it seemed that information (and misinformation) about HIV and AIDS was everywhere. Today, advances in drug therapy and longer life expectancies have taken a lot of the media buzz out of the issue. Despite HIV still being a worldwide problem, it is no longer a regular feature on the front pages of newspapers.

    At times, it can feel like the need to always be moving onto the next story has caused us to forget some of the due diligence associated with preventing any sexually-transmitted infection, let alone one without a cure like HIV.

    The following overview is a reminder of the signs and symptoms that are often associated with an HIV infection, as well as looking at who is most at risk.

    Part 2 covers the currently available treatments for HIV, as well as how to reduce your risks of contracting HIV.

    What is HIV?

    HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus; this virus damages the cells of the human immune system. This results in a person’s immune system becoming weaker over time, and less able to fight everyday infections and diseases.

    The virus attacks white blood cells, which help the body fight infection. It uses the white blood cells to replicate, destroying these cells in the process. As each cell can produce thousands of new virions, which can go on to infect other cells, the virus can eventually deplete the body’s supply of these cells, leading to immunosuppression – the breakdown of the immune system.

    Once the virus has damaged the immune system, it results in a condition referred to as AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome). As a syndrome, AIDS is not transmitted from person to person. HIV can be transmitted, and becoming HIV positive can result in developing AIDS.

    Causes of HIV

    Infection with HIV is most commonly brought about by having unprotected vaginal or anal sex. It is also possible to contract the virus through oral sex, although the risk is much lower. The risk can be increased if the person who is giving the oral sex has mouth ulcers, sores or bleeding gums.

    HIV is transmitted when the virus, which lives in the blood and some body fluids, is passed from people with HIV into the blood of the person being infected.

    The body fluids which carry enough HIV virus to infect another person are:

    • Semen
    • Vaginal fluid, including menstrual blood
    • Breast milk
    • Blood lining inside the anus

     

    Other bodily fluids, such as saliva, sweat and urine, do not contain enough HIV virus load to infect another person.

    The main ways for the virus to enter a person’s bloodstream are:

    • Using needles to inject into the bloodstream that has also been used by a person suffering from HIV
    • Through the lining of the vagina, anus or genitals
    • Through the lining of the mouth or eyes
    • Through cuts and sores on the skin

     

    HIV is Not Passed on By

    • Kissing
    • Being bitten
    • Spitting
    • Contact with unbroken, healthy skin
    • Being sneezed on
    • Sharing baths, towels or cutlery
    • Using the same toilet
    • Using the same swimming pool
    • During mouth to mouth resuscitation
    • Contact with animals

     

    HIV Diagnosis

    As the symptoms of HIV may not appear for several years, it is advisable to have a test if you suspect that you may be infected. Tests are available free of charge by the NHS. In most cases, the results will be available on the same day. It is also possible to obtain HIV test kits for testing at home.

    You can find sexual health services (including STI testing) on the NHS website.

    People who are at high risk of being HIV positive include:

    • Gay, bisexual, and other men who have sex with men
    • Black women
    • Transgender women
    • Youth aged 13–24 years
    • People who inject drugs

     

    Those who have sex with multiple partners (with and without a condom), those who engage in unprotected sex (vaginal, anal, or oral), and those who share or re-use needles to inject drugs or steroids are also at risk.

    Using non-sterile needles for tattooing or piercing can also be a mode of transmission for HIV. However, this is rare, so if you engage in these activities, ensure that the establishment is using proper sterilisation techniques.

    Lastly, research indicates that having had a past sexually-transmitted infection puts you at greater risk for HIV, underscoring the importance of practising safe sex and getting tested regularly.

     

    Order an at-home HIV test online today

     

    Symptoms of HIV – How Can You Tell You Have It?

    While between 40 and 90% of people who have become infected with HIV may develop flu-like symptoms within the first month, many people will display no symptoms at all. This makes it easy for some to be completely unaware that they are infected, and spread the infection to other people. In an interview for Health Magazine, Dr. Michael Horberg of the Kaiser Permanente HIV/AIDS programme said that one in five people infected with HIV will be completely unaware that they have the virus.

    The most common symptoms can present as fever, aches, nausea, unusual fatigue, swollen lymph nodes and sore throat initially. These flu-like symptoms are not exclusively the ones listed here. A large proportion of the population will experience some type of flu-like illness within one month of initial infection with HIV.

    If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, and think that there may be even the smallest chance that you could be infected with HIV, you should get tested. HIV is most infectious at its earliest stage, and you may risk infecting others if you are HIV positive.

    Weight loss and a skin rash can occur at any stage of an HIV infection. If you are eating normally and still chronically losing weight, this may be a sign of a more advanced HIV infection. Chronic diarrhoea can also contribute to weight loss at a later stage of infection. A dry cough can also be a sign of later infection, although it too can occur at any time.

    As with weight loss, skin rashes can occur at any time of an HIV infection. These rashes are usually non-itchy, developing on the trunk, arms, and sometimes the face.

    HIV Symptoms in Women

    There is some evidence that the symptoms of HIV may present slightly differently in women. The initial flu-like symptoms are similar, but the major difference is the prevalence of vaginal yeast infections, or vaginal thrush. The fungus that causes these, candida, can take advantage of your lowered immune response. Frequent recurring thrush may be a sign of potential HIV infection.

    In addition, women with HIV may experience pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) and irregular menstruation as a result.

    What Do I Do if I Have Any of These Symptoms?

    If you have any of the following symptoms, it is imperative to get tested. Even if you think there is a very small chance that you have HIV, you should consider a test. There are a lot of less-serious illnesses and infections that can cause these symptoms, but HIV is incurable. The earlier it is diagnosed, the more manageable your treatment will be.

    There are several tests available for HIV. The most commonly used method is antibody testing. Performed with an oral swab, results can be found in just minutes from an antibody test.

    It replaces the older, but slightly more accurate method of blood testing. A blood test involves a needle, of course, which can be unpleasant for many people. Even though the results are slightly more precise, they can take much longer to get (normally around 72 hours). This lack of speed means it is no longer the preferred method of testing.

    For more info on treatment and living with HIV, please check out Part 2.